Brian May

I’ve been thinking about Brian May. In a particular way he is a paragon — a kind of ideal.

Please understand that most of the people I hang out with on a daily basis are part of a small contingent of the population that really believe, down in our bones, that science and art are deeply intertwined — that thinking seriously about how the universe around us really works, and building shared aesthetic meaning between people, are simply different parts of the same larger quest.

This is definitely not the cultural norm. Most well known people who have contributed to both the sciences and the arts have done so as two entirely divergent pursuits. Samuel F Morse was perhaps the single most influential figure in the invention of the telegraph, yet this has nothing at all to do with his considerable contributions as a painter and fine artist.

Similarly, the invention by Hedi Lamarr and George Antheil of spread spectrum (essential to both radar and modern cell phone technology) had nothing to do with her career as a Hollywood star or his as an influential avant-guarde composer.

But Brian May is different. A serious first rank rock star — the lead guitarist of the legendary rock group Queen, and by general consensus one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time — he is also known in the field of astrophysics for his research into the movement of interplanetary dust clouds (the subject of his Ph.D. in astrophysics).

But what really distinguishes May is the fact that one of Queen’s biggest hits — “’39” — was essentially a lecture on Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity — and quite a good one at that. The essential plot of the sad lyric is that a ship of space explorers leaves for a one year journey, but because of relativistic time dilation, one hundred years have passed (therefore they also return in the year of ’39), to find that everyone they had known or loved is long dead.

What fascinates me about this lyric is the way the astrophysicist channeled his love of science, without any watering down or compromise, into one of the most popular songs by one of history’s greatest rock bands.

I have seen examples of well known scientists “doing art”, and well known artists “commenting on science”, but I can’t think of a similar instance in modern times where an individual managed to connect their inner scientist and inner artist in such a seamless and completely successful way.

One Response to “Brian May”

  1. Sharon says:

    Probably not in the same league as Brian May, but this post reminded me of a show that we have tickets to see in NY next week: The Rap Guide to Evolution (http://rapguidetoevolution.com/about/). From the web site: “A novel species of theatre combining the wit, poetry and charisma of a great rapper with the accuracy and rigor of a scientific expert, Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution uses hip-hop as a vehicle to communicate the facts of evolution while illuminating the origins and complexities of hip-hop culture with Darwin as the inspiration.”

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